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Our view: Approach Hells Angels' visit with common sense

The Northland could be "heading for disaster" this week when the Hells Angels arrive for their annual USA Run. So says Scottie McDermott, an Australian sociologist, researcher and writer who has been observing and studying outlaw motorcycle clubs...

Hells Angels
A member of the Hells Angels takes a picture of street performers in Cody, Wyo., in. 2006. (Cody Enterprise)

The Northland could be "heading for disaster" this week when the Hells Angels arrive for their annual USA Run.

So says Scottie McDermott, an Australian sociologist, researcher and writer who has been observing and studying outlaw motorcycle clubs for 20 years and who has been to at least 10 USA Runs. Signs of trouble have been popping up for weeks, she told the News Tribune editorial page.

And the predictors of problems haven't been coming from our leather-clad, Harley-riding visitors, either, as some no doubt assume. They've been coming from us -- from our police and from our news reporters.

In comments made to the media and at public meetings, police and others have been painting the Hells Angels as a threat to public safety and as a lawless gang hellbent on taking over towns and establishments and targeting local residents to beat up, rape or worse. They've been called felons, thugs and well-organized criminals. West Duluth's Spirit Valley Days switched dates to remove any chance of the Hells Angels crashing the street dance. And an annual softball tournament was only begrudgingly allowed.

"Police have put the fear of God into everyone, all the way up the North Shore. I think the fish are afraid," said McDermott, who authored a short viewpoint for today's page and who plans to be in the Northland this week to observe and report. "The world is watching. This event is being watched closely because the USA Run has never been this far north before and because of the absolute vinegar that has come out of Duluth. It could be quite harmful to the reputation of the North Shore and entire Duluth area if this doesn't come off well."

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There isn't anyone who doesn't want the visit to come off well. However, considering the Hells Angels history, reputation and record, can anyone really blame law enforcement for being ready? Or for sounding a soundly supported -- even if not always tempered -- alarm?

First formed in 1948 in the Fontana and San Bernadino area of California, and with a name reportedly borrowed from fighter squadrons and bomber groups of World War II, the Hells Angels grew in membership through the 1950s and 1960s.

Their reputation for troublemaking was built on books such as "Hell's Angels" by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and on films such as "The Wild One," starring Marlon Brando, and "Hells Angels on Wheels" with Jack Nicholson.

Their reputation turned to reality at places such as the Altamont Speedway in California. In the summer of 1969, the Rolling Stones hired them to provide concert security. The Hells Angels carried sawed-off pool cues and parked their motorcycles in front of the stage, but they were woefully outnumbered. Scuffles turned violent. A hit-and-run driver killed two people. Another concertgoer drowned in a puddle. A pregnant woman who found her way onto stage was hit in the head with a beer bottle that fractured her skull. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane, one of the opening acts, was knocked unconscious by a Hells Angels member who plowed into him. And, worst of all, right in front of the stage, a concertgoer named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by the Hells Angels after he pulled a gun during a shoving match.

In 2002, attitudes toward the Hells Angels grew darker. On the casino floor at Harrah's in Laughlin, Nev., the Hells Angels battled with fists, knives and guns a rival motorcycle club called the Mongols. One Mongol was stabbed to death. Two Hells Angels were shot to death.

More recently, in 2006, an international gathering in Cody, Wyo., ended with drug arrests. A year after that, at the USA Run in Eureka Springs, Ark., six Hells Angels were arrested for stabbing and beating four members of the rival Bandido motorcycle club. And at last year's USA Run in Missoula, Mont., police received reports of rapes that weren't prosecuted, either because the victims didn't press charges or witnesses refused to come forward -- or both.

So there's plenty of reason for Carlton and the rest of the Northland to be worried, right?

Not necessarily.

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A "Hells Angels [event] is neither as good as you think or as bad as you think," journalist Key Semion told the News Tribune editorial page last week after covering, for years, Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla.

It's possible we may be able to expect a "civil" and "family-like" gathering this week, as Hells Angels members promised in conversations with the Carlton County Sheriff's Department.

That wouldn't surprise investigative journalist Julian Sher, author of "Angels of Death," about the darker side of the club. He told Minnesota Public Radio the bikers tend to behave when on public display.

"On the one hand, they get to sell their dangerous image," he said. "But on the other hand, nothing serious usually happens, and then their PR machine can kick in and say, 'You see? We're just a bunch of lovable rascals on wheels.' "

No one should confuse the Hells Angels for lovable rascals. But neither should anyone, apparently, spend the week in hiding with their doors locked.

Do: "Carry about with your daily lives," as McDermott advises. "[The Hells Angels members] will come into bars and restaurants. They'll go into the shops. Some of them will bring their wives and even their kids if they're old enough to ride. This is, so to speak, their vacation. Whatever business or work or education is happening at home gets left there. This is a time to reunite with other members to talk about, 'How's your family? How's your wife? How's your job? What did you do with your bike this year?'

"Respect is given as respect is received," she said.

But don't: "Take a poke at one of the Hells Angels or crush a beer can on their bike or something like that," as Missoula County, Mont., Sheriff Mike McMeekin told Minnesota Public Radio happened last year.

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So are we heading for disaster this week?

Not with a little respect, common sense and hospitality -- all of which are typically in abundance across the Northland.

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